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Younger viewers don't watch prime time

Late-night cable shows and reruns offer alternatives
/ Source: The Associated Press

Andrew Myers, a 20-year-old college student from New York, loves to watch Jon Stewart, David Letterman, “South Park” and “Seinfeld” reruns. Many days, he doesn’t turn on the television until 11 at night.

“The majority of my TV watching is late at night, when I’m done with all of the other stuff that I’m doing,” he said.

He’s not alone. The flip side to statistics showing fewer young people watching prime-time TV this fall — numbers that have baffled and scared television executives — is that more are simply watching later.

Savvy cable executives have responded to the increased late-night viewership, and may even have accelerated the trend.

“I don’t think it’s totally rocket science to note that young people are up late at night,” said Kathryn Mitchell, executive vice president of programming at Comedy Central. “They weren’t catered to, and now they are.”

Prime time is defined as 8 to 11 p.m. for the broadcast networks. Myers said he reserves that time for schoolwork, or going out with friends. If there’s a show on then that he wants to see, he’ll save it on his digital video recorder.

Such cable channels as MTV, Comedy Central, FX, Bravo and VH1 effectively start their prime time at 10. That’s when high-profile programs “Nip/Tuck,” “The Osbournes,” “Real World,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Crank Yankers” and “Joe Schmo” are first shown.

The 10 p.m. hour is popular for cable because there’s less broadcast competition. Fox, the WB and UPN — all young-skewing networks — air local news then. ABC, CBS and NBC tend to show either dramas or newsmagazines, which gives, say, Comedy Central a good counterprogramming opportunity.

Catering to night owls
Another new development is cable channels rerunning their best shows after midnight.

When its high-profile 10 p.m. to midnight shows, including those featuring Stewart and Colin Quinn, are over each night, Comedy Central immediately reruns them the two-hour block. MTV and VH1 have started doing something similar with their lineups.

Comedy Central has more people watching from midnight to 2 a.m. than it does from 6 to 8 p.m., Mitchell said.

“If I’m home at 2 in the morning and I’m flipping through the channels, I’m astounded at the good content you can get,” said Brian Graden, top programming executive for MTV and VH1.

Night owl viewership, from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., increased 35 percent for people aged 18 to 34 between 1999 and 2003, according to Nielsen Media Research.

During the same period, prime-time viewership decreased 3 percent in that age group. It’s been more concentrated this year: viewing for young men is down 7 percent since last fall. People in this age group do a little more than one-quarter of their TV-watching during traditional prime time, down 10 percent in four years, Nielsen said.

At 5 a.m. Charles is in ChargeNo one can quite explain the time shift. Betsy Frank, chief researcher for the MTV Networks, suggests there’s more video-game playing during the earlier hours. Perhaps there’s simply fewer shows on between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. that they want to watch.

Oddly, another network taking advantage of this trend is Nickelodeon, which airs reruns of classic TV shows under the Nick at Nite banner between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Its reruns of “Charles in Charge” fell flat early in the evening. But it draws more than one million viewers, on average, when it airs at 5 a.m., shocking network executives.

Nick at Nite sells itself to viewers as television comfort food, and many responded during economic tough times and in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, said Larry Jones, Nick at Nite general manager.

The network has conducted studies to prove there’s a vibrant, engaged audience out there late at night. Many advertisers believe that a lot of televisions on at that hour play to a snoring audience.

“I think a lot of the networks are completely in the dark about this,” Jones said. “For sure, the broadcasters are.”

The big networks don’t ignore young viewers late at night. Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Craig Kilborn and Carson Daly all have wee-hour talk shows with youthful audiences. But the cable networks argue those are all the same kind of program, and they’re providing an alternative.

“If you’re my daughter, who’s 20, would you rather watch Jay Leno or something that’s tailored to your demographic?” said Larry Gerbrandt, television analyst for Kagan World Media.